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To make it as a woman in the culinary world, you have to exude an almost extreme level of toughness. Meredith Clinton, the Executive Chef of Black Sheep Catering, has certainly earned her stripes in that category. Still, underneath her legit skills and assertive demeanor, she has a tender heart for people like herself — the ones who find themselves in the unforgiving world of kitchen restaurants. This combo of savory and sweet makes her all the more intriguing and elevates her menus into even more exciting experiences. Please join me as we welcome our newest FACE of Memphis, Meredith Clinton.

Black and white photo of Meredith Clinton smiling on couch

Please welcome this week’s FACE of Memphis, Meredith Clinton.

Where did you get the name for your company, Black Sheep Catering?

Kitchen restaurants often attract people who do not belong in normal settings and view themselves as black sheep — rejects, addicts, convicts, weirdoes. But the goal for all of these people is the same: they want to make good food. So, I wanted to take that term — “black sheep” — and make it something that is associated with words like “good” and “pretty.” I wanted to take the negative and make it positive and give these people a new, beautiful place to be.

How does one write a menu?

My menus are often driven by sustainability. I was inspired by watching my grandma cook. She didn’t waste a thing. She stored everything in her Cool Whip containers and always made something new out of what she already had. When I cook this way, my menu is ever-evolving. I’m working with what I have and creating new things, which makes for a menu that is always rotating. As I make the food that will show up on the menu, I cook like my grandma did — by feeling. I don’t write things down like I probably should, so there’s no exactness to it. I’m guided almost by a sixth sense.

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You sometimes host “pop-up dinners in secret locations.” How does the element of intrigue impact a dining experience?

As I plan a dinner, I make what comes to me, what makes sense, and what’s affordable. This means my menu is constantly changing, and some diners hate that. But these days, most diners just want to go out and have fun. Some people don’t actually know what they want. They come in and tell me they hate mushrooms, but then I tell them they haven’t had them cooked correctly. I serve them a dish with mushrooms, and they love it. Of course, we allow our diners to tell us when they have dietary restrictions or allergies, but beyond that, I curate our menus based on demand and what comes to me as a chef.

Meredith Clinton of Black Sheep Catering

Going against the grain, Meredith turned the term “black sheep” into something positive.

When composing a tasting menu, how do you balance all of the culinary details to create the most satisfying experience for your diners?

I write and rewrite, and there’s a lot of trial and error involved. There’s also a lot of development before execution. I ask myself questions like, “Does this feel good in the mouth?” I think about textures like crunchiness or flavors like sweetness. Over time, you get better and better at writing menus because experience always helps.

You are a trail-blazer for women in the culinary world. Why do you think men have historically led the way, and what do you see changing?

It’s like any other industry. It takes women more experience and more hard work to get treated the same as men. Kitchens are hot and hard and not for the faint-hearted. Women are seen as weak and easily fatigued. But in reality, so many chefs say their inspiration is their mom or their grandma. Women have inspired people to cook forever, so now it’s time that we inspire our own gender to move forward in this industry. Karen Carrier and Felicia Suzanne are the top two female chefs in Memphis, and they are wonderful. But we need more.

Sustainability, foraging, and sourcing local ingredients are your focus. What ingredients make this region unique, and which ones do you like working with the most?

I go to a friend’s land in Corinth, Mississippi. He has acres and acres, and he grows chanterelle mushrooms there. They have a golden look to them, and they are everywhere, so his land looks like it has little pockets of gold all over it. They are delicious and my number one favorite ingredient to use. Chanterelles thrive in moist, hot environments, so this area is perfect for them.

Meredith Clinton posing on steps

Meredith creates unique dishes with an emphasis on sustainability, foraging, and sourcing local ingredients.

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I read that you have experience in the pastry world. Do you prefer cooking on the sweet or savory side of the menu?

I love both. Initially, I was put in pastry because that’s where women often get placed. The pastry world requires smarts, as well as someone with a delicate touch. I was bothered by being put there at first, but once I let my animosity go, I fell in love with the science behind it. If you change something, it will affect how the pastry turns out. It’s about asking why — why did that one change make such a big difference? But overall, in cooking, I go through moods. Right now, I’m working on making the best fried chicken.

How did your childhood contribute to getting you to where you are now?

I was the middle child and black sheep, and I always wanted to prove myself, which I still find myself wanting to do. I am so thankful for the life I had because it has only made me better. Now that I’ve taken the resentment out of it and grown up, those things have given me what I needed to get me where I am now.

Meredith Clinton of Black Sheep Catering in her apron

Admitting that restaurant kitchen culture has a bad reputation for a reason, Meredith is out to create an environment that challenges the stereotype.

You mentioned getting rid of resentment and animosity. What does it take for you to make that happen?

Kitchen restaurants are toxic, hard, and abusive. They get the best of you. They are hard because there is this focus on perfection. There’s pressure to please everyone, especially the guests and even yourself. It’s a pressure that can drive a person to drink, and it’s not good for anyone’s mental health. I make it a goal to stay upbeat mentally and cultivate an atmosphere that makes people want to come to work every day. It’s important to me that we have a sober environment where people aren’t doing drugs like what used to happen in kitchens. I have learned that if I’m in a good mood and surround myself with people who will check me when I’m not, that will carry over and create a positive vibe. People will stay longer, and it will be a good situation for everyone.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My partner, Keith, regularly tells me, “I believe in you.” It means a lot to hear affirmation like that on a regular basis. It’s normal to doubt yourself, but the most important thing is knowing someone else really does believe in you.

Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?

Fried chicken, champagne, and caffeine.

Thank you, Meredith! All photography by Trey Easter

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Check out our FACES archives to meet more inspiring Memphis women. 

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